There's something very old-world about the way the Flatlanders express themselves. The group's new album, Wheels of Fortune (New West Records) overflows with references to weary brakemen, wishing wells, tough gals, roadside diners, and Old West circuses. When they hit the road, they do so "in a rooster tail of dust." When they get restless, this is how they break the news: "I've stayed on your farm as long as I'm gonna stay/I've watched the eggs of your chickens roll away."
The Flatlanders don't merely use archaic language, they also convey a sense that they inhabit a dirt-road world that long ago slipped out of America's rearview mirror. In a way, the Flatlanders have always been like that. Even when Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock were ambitious young Texas singer-songwriters who hooked up and recorded a 1972 demo together - later documented on the much-praised album, More a Legend Than a Band - they sounded wise and world-weary beyond their years.
The aging process has been good to these guys, and despite their considerable solo reputations, they seem able to slip into band mode like it was nothing more daunting than a pair of snakeskin boots. On Wheels of Fortune, they do what they've always done: a mixture of Lone Star philosophy ("Go to Sleep Alone"), yearning romanticism ("Baby Do You Love Me Still?"), and tragicomic vignettes ("I'm Gonna Strangle You Shorty"). Most intriguingly, they often switch off on each other's songs, proving the point that their talents are interchangeable by this point. Ely lends an earthy growl to Gilmore's ethereal "Go to Sleep Alone," and Gilmore lends his mournful nasality to Hancock's cautiously hopeful title song.
Gilmore is the band's standout vocalist, but Hancock's songwriting is the secret weapon. His songs tend to best capture the rustic lyricism that always made the Flatlanders' work stand out next to either commercial country or roots-conscious Americana music.
In 2004, what kind of band would even consider making the musical saw a prominent part of their new album? The kind of band that's so self-assured, it doesn't care if its classicism is mistaken for anachronism.